Italian devotees danced for joy down the streets of Rome, looking up at Lord Jagannath’s colorful chariot as they celebrated the first ever Rathayatra festival in their capital on May 31st.
Since the first Italian Rathayatra in Viareggio, Tuscany in 1981, the ancient parade festival has been celebrated at least once a year in cities such as Florence, Milan, and Verona. But there hasn’t been a Rathayatra in Italy’s renowned capital, Rome, until this May.
Spurring devotees on was the fact that May 2014 was the 40th anniversary of Srila Prabhupada’s visit in 1974 to Rome, where he stayed for one week.
Despite various differences between themselves, devotees from all over Italy united as one to hold a Rathayatra in honor of the ISKCON founder.
Residents of Villa Vrindavana in Tuscany brought their large deities of Lord Jagannath, Baladeva and Subhadra. Devotees from the preaching center in Genoa brought Their Lordships’ small counterparts. And devotees from Milan brought their beautifully decorated chariot.
Meanwhile devotees from Venice brought their Gaura Nitai, who were personally worshipped by Srila Prabhupada and were the first deities to be installed in ISKCON Italy. And hundreds of devotees came from all over the country to attend and help under the guidance of organizer Mukundananda Das.
On the morning of May 31st, devotees opened two booths in the historic Piazza del Popolo in the center of Rome. In the first, they chanted continuous bhajans all day, and from the second they distributed large amounts of Srila Prabhupada’s books throughout the day to many interested customers.
At 4:50pm, Lord Jagannath ascended His chariot, and despite rain during the day, the sun appeared and stayed out for the rest of the evening.
At 5:00pm, devotees began to pull the grand chariot with its tall, colorful canopy of red and yellow down Via del Corso through the very heart of Rome. Ahead of the chariot, Sri Sri Gaura Nitai rode in a golden palanquin, while devotees sang the Holy Names at the top of their lungs, played mridangas, kartals, accordions, trumpets, and bugles, and bounced and pinwheeled across the cobbled street, their saffron and white robes billowing up around them. At the head of the parade, ladies in colorful saris danced in perfect coordination.
Seeing all this, the general public swarmed about the parade in their thousands for a closer look, tightly packing the narrow streets.
“The people, especially Roman people, were very surprised, because they had never seen anything like this before,” says Villa Vrindavana temple president Parabhakti Das, who attended. “They were also very impressed by the chariot, and lots of locals and tourists joined the devotees and danced with us.”
Meanwhile others snapped photos of the incredible sight, and many came out onto their balconies to watch and clap along with the kirtan.
All were delighted to receive some of the 10,000 prasadam cookies that devotees distributed from the chariot.
Although the parade route was short, the many stops along the way to chant and dance with onlookers ensured that devotees didn’t arrive back at Piazza del Popolo until after 7:30pm.
“I have never seen devotees so happy in my life!” says Mrtyuhara Das, who also attended and filmed the event. “After forty years since Srila Prabhupada’s visit to Rome, this was the best celebration that all the Italian devotees could offer to our beloved spiritual master.”
Since permission was not given by the city for distributing food on a large scale or for a stage show, this year’s Rathayatra consisted only of the parade.
Nevertheless, devotees are delighted and see the event as a huge success. Parabhakti explains that it is next to impossible to get permission just to hold a parade in such a prime location in the center of Rome, yet Mukundananda achieved it, getting full permission just ten days before the parade.
The success has inspired devotees to make Rome Rathayatra an annual event. “Now that the door is open, we hope to get permission for a stage show and prasadam next year,” says Parabhakti.
He feels that finally holding Rathayatra in Rome is a very important step for ISKCON Italy.
“From the religious point of view, Rome is the most important city in Europe,” he says. “All the religious movements and traditions have something there. So for us to have something as big in visibility as Rathayatra in Rome will give us much more recognition in Italian society.”[ italy ] [ lord-jagannatha ] [ ratha-yatra ] [ rome ]